By Jared Cornelius
Have you ever played a modern game that takes you back to your childhood? A game that in every way makes you remember why you fell in love with video games in the first place? 2D platformer, Shovel Knight, has become that title for me. Shovel Knight started life as a successful Kickstarter from Yacht Club Games, a group of ex-Wayforward Technologies employees. Wayforward has something of a reputation in the retro game community as the people keeping the classics alive. In recent years they’ve been responsible for revivals like Contra 4, A Boy and His Blob, and DuckTales Remastered. So it was no surprise when the Wayforward expatriates announced they wanted to make a new property with an old school mentality, the retro gaming community gave their hard earned cash up front to support the studio. Thanks to that money and support, gamers are getting a title that not only stands with the best platformers of the NES generation, but stands with the best platformers of any generation.
You play as the titular Shovel Knight, a brave adventurer who wields the mighty power of the shovel blade. Shovel Knight and his partner Shield Knight were adventurers until Shield Knight was lost in the Tower of Fate when they ran across a cursed amulet. Shovel Knight awakens with the tower sealed and Shield Knight missing. Despondent at the loss of his love, Shovel Knight gives up adventuring and retires to a quiet life in seclusion. During his adventure sabbatical, the evil Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter have taken over, drawing Shovel Knight out for a final adventure. The story is mainly told through text boxes, but does have slight interactive elements during certain sections of gameplay, making for an interesting use of minimalist storytelling. It’s another refreshing touch of nostalgia that keeps the games authentic classic feel.
Shovel Knight’s pixelated art style is really nothing short of amazing, looking like it could’ve been plucked from an NES circa 1992. Its classic art style is charming and credible, but also uses the fact it’s not on a retro console to its advantage. Shovel Knight runs smooth like silk in every aspect, with zero slowdown, clipping, or visual issues. From start to finish the game held its frame rate, even when enemies became numerous on screen. Each stage also feels crafted at an artisan level and while looking like an NES game, it’s clear that Shovel Knight has more going on that an NES could’ve handled. Specter Knight’s Lich Yard is a dismal graveyard where your view will often be obscured by the lights going out and replaced by only a moment of illumination from lightning.
The Plague Knight’s Explodatorium glows with green and purple tubes and vials, evoking a pixelated rave. Shovel Knights effects feel more on par with what a Genesis or a Super Nintendo would’ve been capable of. The character design is also superb with enemies and boss knights having cool and interesting looks. From the simple helicopter bladed rats, to the garish King Knight, the characters all show so much personality with just their designs and outfits, but they also really shine with their pixelated mannerisms. Yacht Club makes the most of its 8-bit art style right down to the fact it has a Super Mario Bros. 3 style over-world map.
Shovel Knight keeps doing things right with an amazing soundtrack. Composed mainly by Jake Kaufman, another ex-Wayforward employee with additional tracks by Manami Matsumae, who did music for Capcom’s Mega Man series. The beautiful chiptune music keeps with the rest of the games aesthetic, feeling polished and modern, without getting away from the game’s classic feel. The key to good chiptune music on the NES was feeling catchy, but never getting repetitive, even though the music had to repeat due to the consoles limitations. Shovel Knight again rises to the task, a track like “The Apparition” feels like it belongs with an NES Castlevania title, while “The Destroyer” feels like long-lost Mega Man music. The composition never had me feeling bored or made me want to turn the volume down. As a small aside, the soundtrack is available on Bandcamp if you’re interested.
Shovel Knight also has the distinction of having some of the tightest controls I’ve played with since Super Meat Boy. When you hit a button, Shovel Knight follows his digital instructions. It never felt like when I died, it was the game’s fault, but my own mistake. The movement is smooth and fluid, the jumping feels tight and precise which is a must for any platformer. The games movement has shades of both Capcom’s Mega Man and DuckTales series with a pogo mechanic playing a big part in level traversal. In terms of combat, Shovel Knight feels closer to Castlevania or Link’s Adventure, with players needing to get up close and personal when dealing with enemies. There were several duels where I had distinct flashbacks to Link’s Adventure’s 2D sword combat.
While Yacht Club Games did make a game that revels in its classic feel, they weren’t slavish to all the retro sensibilities. One of my favorite features was the lack of a traditional lives system. Shovel Knight runs on a gold-based mechanic, which sees you losing gold when you die, but being able to recover it by making it back to the point of death. If you’ve played Dark Souls or EverQuest, think copse runs. Shovel Knight also uses a very fair check pointing system that allows you to destroy checkpoint markers for more cash but destroying a checkpoint will mean a much further haul if you die. The game is bolstered with a bit of customization, with plenty of upgrades available for your heath and magic, with more upgrades for your blade and armor as well. Yacht Club also included an in game achievement system they call “Feats” that range from simple to seemingly impossible to help round out the games challenge.
Like any game, Shovel Knight does have some flaws, the first being that not all the promised content is in the game yet. Options like a “gender swapped mode” and additional playable knights will be released in upcoming patches. The story also feels a bit predictable, but these are minor complaints and don’t really detract all that much from the game’s overall quality.
Of the three versions, I’ve played the Wii U, and 3DS versions. There’s not much difference between the two, the 3DS version has Street Pass integration along with the obvious 3D. Both versions use the touchpad for item-switching, which is nice, and they both look identical in terms of visuals. I’m currently enjoying the 3DS version the most, since the controls feel a little more precise with the handheld compared to the meaty Wii U gamepad.
Shovel Knight at its core is a love letter to the bygone days of the 8-bit generation, with inspiration from any number of well-remembered 2D classics. It took the things that those games did well and has succeeded in making them better. Shovel Knight uses that classic inspiration and crosses it with modern day sensibilities. It’s never a slave to its 8-bit roots, but pays homage to them in the best way possible, by innovating on the mechanics and tropes that made them great. At the end of the day, Shovel Knight is a master’s class in how to do a classic video game right. It’s so well-crafted down to the smallest detail that I don’t know if Yacht Club Games could’ve done much more to make it better. The gameplay, sound, and controls are superb, and most of all the game has a genuine soul. That’s something you don’t often find in big budget releases these days. When was the last time you popped in Call of Duty and felt like someone who loved what they were doing made this? That’s what Shovel Knight feels like, like people who love classic platformers banded together to make a game out of passion. I think that’s one of the noblest ventures a group of people can make and they should be rewarded with a purchase. I don’t usually give a rating on video games, but Shovel Knight gets five stars, 10 out of 10, exploding face, whatever top rating is your favorite.
In the interests of transparency, I did participate in the Kickstarter for Shovel Knight, but you don’t have to take my word its good, here’s the Metacritic. Fans of 2D platformers, retro games, and 8-bit aficionados should check out Shovel Knight immediately. Shovel Knight is currently available on Nintendo 3DS, Wii U, and Steam.
Jared Cornelius is some guy from New Jersey’s coast who’s patently waiting for Shovel Knight 2. If you’d like to try and predict that time table contact him on Twitter @John_Laryngitis